Following an interesting article on Connosr, I decided to run with their basic idea: given a limited budget, what four bottles would you advise a beginner to purchase to set up his or her whisky cabinet? They set a budget of 100 pounds (U.K.) Whisky prices vary enormously from state to state in the U.S., and from store to store within some states, so I'm not going to try all that hard to hit the 100 pound mark. I'll give what I think are the approximate Michigan, U.S.A. prices for the whiskies on my list. And I'm going to recommend five, not four.
My goal is to allow the taster to survey a couple of regions, without sinking a huge amount of money into individual bottles. I also wanted to pick whiskies that, while lower on the cost scale, none of these choices should be lower on the quality scale -- in other words, they shouldn't be "beginner" whiskies in quality. I've really enjoyed all of them, and still think these choices to hold their own with some considerably more expensive choices. I also wanted to recommend an "upgrade path" -- if the taster really likes this particular whisky, what would be a good next step?
My choices are somewhat different than the Connosr panelists -- but that's the joy of having so many intriguing choices, isn't it?
1. Glenfiddich 15 -- approximately $35. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). In my opinion, the 15 is the most well-rounded of this distillery's 3 basic age-statement whiskies. It's a Speyside whisky, somewhat middle-of-the-road, somewhat sweet, but this doesn't make it bland; it has a lot of intriguing fruit and wood notes. Upgrade path: Glenmorangie 10, The Balvenie Single Barrel 15.
2. The Tyrconnell, a single malt Irish whiskey -- approximately $35. Single malt Irish whiskies are uncommon compared to Scottish whiskies. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). This is a very nice and smooth, not-too-expensive dram, with an absolutely lovely mouth feel. Upgrade path: I haven't really tasted enough Irish whiskies to be able to confidently recommend one. I haven't tasted Redbreast 12, a blend that is reportedly very good, but that might make a good upgrade, or at least a side-grade.
3. Laphroaig Quarter Cask -- approximately $50. There are a lot of good basic Islay whiskies, and a lot of good extra-aged Islay whiskies. This one is a wonderful and relatively inexpensive mix of those two general types (it isn't really extra-aged, but the extra wood contact has largely the same effect). It has the marvelous dry Laphroaig peat and smoke notes, but they are moderated by some fantastic oak vanilla, orange, and dark chocolate notes. In that way I see it as a good introduction to the peaty Islay whiskies, while those sweeter flavors keep it from being too much of a shock to the system. It's also at a slightly higher ABV (48%) than the 10 (at 43%), so it's a good introduction to slightly stronger whisky, without being too much of a shock to the system like recent Ardbegs, that are upwards of, or even over, 60% ABV. If cost is critical, consider the basic Laphroaig 10, which is a damned fine Islay whisky in its own right, although a little drier and more uncompromising in flavor. Upgrades: Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Laphroaig 15.
4. Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured -- approximately $35. A great introduction to the huge variety of whiskies that are aged in the combination of bourbon and sherry casks. Has some great and slightly unusual bittersweet notes including coffee flavors. If the taster particularly loves this one, I'd recommend as possible upgrades the Glenfarclas 17, the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, Springbank 15, or the amazing crossover with peat, Ardbeg Uigeadail.
5. Jim Beam Black (8 year old bourbon) -- approximately $20. This one is interesting in that it is a really delicious and complex bourbon, that ranks up there with some very expensive bourbons, but it is itself quite inexpensive. Upgrade path: Buffalo Trace.
Total price: approximately (very approximately) $175. At tonight's exchange rate, $175 is equivalent to about 117 pounds sterling, so I went a little over budget -- but not by much! If you substitute the Laphroaig 10, at about $35, for the Quarter Cask, you'll be very close.